Richland History Group: Why were the greenhouses of Pittsburgh Cut Flower abandoned?

Have you ever driven past the former Pittsburgh Cut Flower property on Bakerstown Road and wondered why 13 acres of greenhouses were abandoned, becoming overgrown by trees and shrubs pushing through their frames? Global market changes brought an end to a business that supplied many of the city’s flowers for more than 100 years.

In 1872, 19-year-old Fred Burki immigrated from Switzerland and began working as a plant grower for CM Seibert. In the 1870s, he set up his own greenhouse business in Bellevue.

But near the City of Pittsburgh, the local steel industry made the air quality poor. In 1884, Burki bought 242 acres of farmland from the Crawford family on both sides of Bakerstown Road in Gibsonia (the current location of the blue Richland Township water tower). The site had excellent exposure to sunlight, several springs and a long slope that would permit a gravity-feed of water to the greenhouses.

As early as 1898, Burki had some of his Bellevue greenhouses disassembled and moved by horse and wagon to Bakerstown. As the business grew, more greenhouses were added, gradually moving down the hill, with the last one added in 1924. The new structures ranged from 50 to 562 feet long.

Two lakes were formed at the base of the valley to maintain a water supply. During the age before electricity, ice from frozen portions of the lakes was cut and used to cool the storage area of ​​the freshly cut flowers. In 1901, they built a packing house near the road to process cut flowers and formed a corporation called Pittsburgh Rose and Carnation.

The new company built a pump-house near the lakes and added two water towers, one for the greenhouses and one for residences. (The current blue water tower replaced the greenhouse water tower in 1971.)

Between 1908 and 1917, they built coal-fired, then oil-fired, boiler plants to pump hot water through the greenhouses in winter.

Around 1909, the business changed its name to Pittsburgh Cut Flower Company and added still more greenhouses, barns, and houses for staff. In the 1920s, one of the houses served as a switchboard for the North Pittsburgh Telephone Company, which Fred Burki helped found.

Flowers grown in Bakerstown were taken to the Gibsonia train station to ship to the Pittsburgh Cut Flower distribution center, on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, for wholesale.

In these years of booming business, Cut Flower was one of the largest employers in Richland, employing about 200 people.

They grew roses, carnations, mums and many other flowers and greens. At its peak, it was the largest cut flower business in Pennsylvania, producing 2.5 million roses per year.

In these early years, Pittsburgh Cut Flower also was referred to as “Crystal Farm,” because when frost was on the lighted greenhouse campus, it glistened like a crystal city. It has been said that commercial airline flights often used the light emitted from the greenhouses as a landmark night beacon as they approached Pittsburgh Airport.

But in the mid-1970s, as transportation became better and faster, it became significantly cheaper to import cut flowers from a warmer climate than to grow them in the northern states. Cut Flower closed in 1991.

After this, the property sat idle. The greenhouses were abandoned and gradually collapsed. Sometimes a struggling rose peeked through the ruins to remind us of the beautiful past of Pittsburgh Cut Flower. Eventually, the property was sold, and now the greenhouses have been torn down.

The property is starting to flower a new life as the Traditions of America, 55 and older adult housing plan.

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